In this post, I outline a 3-day intermediate powerlifting program and explain how and why your training should differ from the beginner’s.
Progressing from the beginner to the intermediate stage can be frustrating since it often means that you’ve reached your first plateau in strength.
But worry not. With a few adjustments to your training, you can start gaining muscle and strength again.
Who am I?
I’ve competed in and coached powerlifting for ten years. This is the workout routine I recommend intermediate powerlifters move on to when they can no longer gain on the beginner powerlifting program.
In this article:
- How Do You Know if You Are a Beginner, Intermediate, or Advanced?
- How to Increase Your Strength at the Intermediate Level
- The 3-Day Intermediate Powerlifting Program
- Progression Method
- Exercises in the Intermediate Powerlifting Program
- When You Reach The End of The Program
How Do You Know if You Are a Beginner, Intermediate, or Advanced?
While there are many ways to classify experience level, I like these definitions from Practical Programming:
- Beginner: Gets significantly stronger from workout to workout.
- Intermediate: Gets significantly stronger from week to week, or bi-weekly.
- Advanced: Gets significantly stronger from month to month, or longer.
By “significantly stronger”, I mean that you can add 2.5 kg (or 5 lb) and do the same number of reps, or use the same weight but do more reps.
If you’re still getting significantly stronger from workout to workout, then our beginner powerlifting program is right for you.
How to Increase Your Strength at the Intermediate Level
When you’re a beginner, getting stronger is easy.
You just follow a simple novice program, slap on an additional 2.5 kg on every exercise per workout, and enjoy the gains.
But after a while, this starts to get difficult.
Soon you will have to make several attempts at a given weight before you get all your sets and reps in (i.e. going from 5, 4, 4 reps to 5, 5, 5). And as soon as you succeed, you’re supposed to add another 2.5 kg and do it all again.
As you near the end of your beginner phase, this will get very difficult and start wearing you down.
The law of diminishing returns dictates that your gains will generally come the fastest and easiest in the beginning, and the more advanced you get, the more you will have to work for every extra plate on the bar.
This pattern is the same for any sport. And just like athletes in other sports, you need to make the same adjustments as you get more advanced, according to the fundamental principles of training.
Generally, all of the following three increases:
- The necessary training volume. For the complete beginner, just a single set per week will lead to gains in strength and muscle mass. But the more accustomed you become to your training, the higher the threshold you must overcome to stimulate continued gains.
- The need for specialization. For the beginner, anything leads to an improvement in everything. A couch potato that takes up running will grow their leg muscles and improve their one-rep-max in the squat. But, the higher the degree of performance you want in your given sport or lift, the more you need to specialize your training for that goal.
- The need for individualization. Similar to the above principle, a beginner program will work for everyone, more or less. As you increase your training volume and degree of specialization, it will become increasingly important to fit the training to your capabilities and needs. One lifter might thrive on squatting three times per week, while another will just hurt their knees. Some will thrive on a high-volume program while others gain better on something more moderate. You will get the best results when you tailor your training to your needs.
Intermediate Powerlifting Training in Practice
So, what is the best way to train as an intermediate powerlifter?
Generally, you will need to do three things:
- Plan your progress rate accordingly. The aforementioned definition of a beginner is that they get significantly stronger from workout to workout. Intermediate lifters can expect noticeable strength gains from week to week, or at least bi-weekly, and you should plan for this.
- Increase your training volume. Likely, you will have to increase your training volume in the three lifts slightly, since your body is now more accustomed to the stimuli. This is an overarching principle in every sport, and strength training does not seem to be an exception. However, this does not have to be (and should not be) a drastic change. Try increasing your weekly volume in small increments and see how your strength reacts.
- Keep an open mind and be a student of the sport. The training program that works for your gym buddy might not work for you. Your genetics, training history, life circumstances, and psychology will influence which training program you thrive on. That is why we have many different training programs in our app StrengthLog and write articles and guides on training in general here on this site: to educate you, and increase the chances that you will find something that unlocks your maximum strength potential. The training program in this article, however, is something I believe will work for a lot of lifters at the intermediate stage.
Let’s take a look at the program.
The 3-Day Intermediate Powerlifting Program
This intermediate powerlifting program has three workouts per week and is six weeks long.
When you start the program in our training app, you will have to enter your 1RM (one-rep max) in the squat, bench press, and deadlift, and the app will calculate the correct weights for you to use each training session.
Not sure of what your one-rep max is? Use our 1RM calculator to get an estimate.
For two assistance exercises, barbell row and lat pulldown, you will have to manually choose a weight that enables you to complete the designated number of reps.
This program uses the classic heavy–light–medium periodization model within the week. Heavy workouts are done with lower volumes, and light workouts have larger volumes.
Here is an outline of the training week:
- Deadlift: Medium weights, low volume
- Bench Press: Light weights, medium to high volume
- Kneeling Ab Wheel
- Lat Pulldown
- Squat: Medium weights, medium volume
- Bench Press: Heavy weights, low volume
- Romanian Deadlifts: Light weights, low volume
(Download the StrengthLog app to see % of 1RM, number of sets, and reps.)
Complete all three workouts over a week, with at least one day of rest in between every training day.
- Monday: Workout 1
- Wednesday: Workout 2
- Friday: Workout 3
Most people will probably think that this program starts off fairly easy. If you don’t, you might want to lower your entered 1RM slightly.
However, the weights increase every week, and you’ll soon find yourself pushing the boundaries of your previous strength limits.
The light and medium workouts “feed” the heavy workouts. Meaning that before every new heavy workout comes around, you have been doing one or two lighter workouts to boost your muscle and strength gains.
This type of progression is called wave progression, or wave periodization, and the concept can be illustrated like this:
Compare this to the training of the novice lifter, where the load goes up almost every workout for several months.
That is no longer possible as an intermediate lifter, and you need these microcycles before you can take another step up.
Later on, when you are even more adapted to training and have entered the advanced stage, you will need even longer cycles before taking a step up. Like in our advanced powerlifting program.
Exercises in the Intermediate Powerlifting Program
Let’s take a look at the different exercises in this program.
In addition to the three powerlifts, this program contains four accessory exercises. The point of these exercises is to train muscle groups not worked in the main lifts or to aid the development of the working muscles.
The exercises, in order of appearance:
This intermediate powerlifting program slightly prioritizes the squat over the deadlift, with two out of three workouts featuring the squat.
This is for three main reasons:
- In my experience, more people struggle with the squat than with the deadlift. Perhaps because the deadlift more closely resembles lifts we do in our everyday life, it “clicks” easier for many. The squat, on the other hand, often requires far more practice before it starts to feel natural.
- Most people find that they can squat with a higher frequency than they can deadlift, while still recovering enough.
- The muscles worked in the squat overlap to a great extent with the muscles worked in the deadlift. That means, getting stronger in the squat can help your deadlift, and vice versa.
A slight favoring of the squat will generally produce better total gains than a slight favoring of the deadlift, in my opinion. Of course, this might vary between individuals, and you might also want to periodize this by throwing in deadlift specialization blocks now and then.
2. Bench Press
The bench press is the main test of upper body strength in powerlifting. While it is usually the lift in which you put up the smallest numbers out of the three big lifts, it is still an important contribution to your total.
In this program, you train the bench press every workout – three times per week. You begin the week with a medium workout, do a lighter workout in the middle of the week, and finish with a heavy workout.
3. Barbell Row
The barbell row is an accessory exercise that serves two purposes in this program:
- It works the antagonists of your bench press muscles, ensuring that your upper body musculature and strength are balanced and evenly developed.
- It helps your squats and deadlifts by strengthening your back.
You’ll have to choose the weights for yourself in the barbell row, but the same principles of progressive overload apply: try to increase the weight regularly.
The deadlift is the last lift performed in a powerlifting competition and is usually the lift in which you can put up the heaviest weights.
Deadlift training overlaps with squat training, and you can’t train both the squat and deadlift maximally hard at the same time. Therefore, and because of the reasons listed earlier under the squat exercise, your deadlift training will err slightly on the light side in this program. Thanks to all the squat training you will be doing, this will be enough to improve your deadlift strength anyway.
You’ll be training standard deadlifts once per week, using medium weights and low volume, and then you’ll be training Romanian deadlifts once per week to add some additional hypertrophy work.
5. Kneeling Ab Wheel
Powerlifting exercises such as the squat and deadlift mean a lot of training for your posterior core: your spine extensors. To keep your core muscles balanced, we include an exercise for your anterior core: the spine flexors, or simply abs.
6. Lat Pulldown
The lat pulldown will, like the barbell row, help develop your back muscles in tandem with your chest and front delts and strengthen your back for squats and deadlifts.
Pick a weight with which you can complete all reps, and then strive to increase the weight regularly.
7. Romanian Deadlifts
The Romanian deadlift is a deadlift variation that emphasizes your posterior chain muscles, such as the glutes, hamstrings, and lower back.
In the intermediate powerlifting program, you will be doing the Romanian deadlift to add some mass to these muscles in a fairly low-impact way compared to regular squats and deadlifts.
You might want to use deadlift straps in the Romanian deadlift, to be able to work your posterior pulling muscles more effectively.
When You Reach The End of The Program
The weights keep increasing for six weeks, at which point you have reached the end of the program.
At this point, I recommend that you test your 1RM before you start a new program. Alternatively, you can use our 1RM calculator to estimate your 1RM from one of your best sets.
But which program should you do now?
- Did the last week feel easy, and do you think you can handle another cycle? Start the intermediate program over but enter your new 1RM. Perhaps with a deload week in between.
- Did the last week feel heavy, and don’t you think you can handle another cycle? Then it’s probably time to move on to one of our more advanced powerlifting programs.
What About Peaking For a New Max / PR Attempt?
The intermediate lifter should focus more on building their strength rather than testing it. This program is focused on training, not testing, and therefore does not end with a peaking phase and a PR attempt.
If you would like to do a peaking phase, simply do a few additional weeks where you practice with slightly heavier weights in the 1–3 rep range in each of the lifts. Then, when you’ve got some practice under your belt and feel like you might have a good day, go into the gym with a training buddy to spot you and test your 1RM.
You can use our calculator for warming up for a 1RM, and then just keep adding 2.5 kg or 5 lb to the bar until you fail.
In the case of the squat and bench press: make sure you have spotters to catch the bar if you fail, or safety racks set up so you can put the bar down on them if necessary.
Frequently Asked Questions
Let’s address some of the most common questions about intermediate training programs.
- What is an intermediate powerlifter?
- How strong is an intermediate powerlifter?
- How much muscle can an intermediate powerlifter gain?
- Can I add additional accessory work?
- How long can I follow an intermediate workout routine?
What Is an Intermediate Powerlifter?
We use the terms beginner, intermediate, and advanced to describe training status in order to tailor our programs to your specific needs. A beginner can progress much faster than an advanced lifter, and also needs far lower training volume. An intermediate powerlifter is a middle ground between these two.
We usually define an intermediate lifter as someone who gets significantly stronger on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. Significantly stronger in this case meaning that you can add 2.5 kg (or 5 lb) and do the same number of reps you did last week, or use the same weight but perform an additional rep. A beginner is someone who can do this after every workout.
Can you add a little bit of weight or do an extra rep every week or every other week? Then our intermediate powerlifting program will probably be a good fit for you.
How Strong Is an Intermediate Powerlifter?
No set strength levels determine whether you should follow a beginner, intermediate, or advanced program. Rather, it’s your rate of progress that determines what kind of program you should follow.
The intermediate powerlifting program laid out in this program increases the weight every week. That makes the progression rate a bit too fast for most advanced powerlifters, and unnecessarily slow for the beginner powerlifter.
If you still want to compare your strength levels to others, you can look at our strength standards. Note that they are descriptive (of the users of StrengthLog) rather than prescriptive, but they can still give you a rough idea of what programming level you should look at.
How Much Muscle Can an Intermediate Powerlifter Gain?
Here are some typical results in muscle growth from training studies lasting 2–3 months.
- 5–15% muscle thickness
- 10–30% muscle area
- 2–3 kg fat-free mass
- 3–10% muscle thickness
- 6–20% muscle area
- 1–2 kg fat-free mass
An intermediate powerlifter belongs in the “trained” category.
You can read more about rates of muscle gain in our article: How fast can you build muscle?
Can I Add Additional Accessory Work?
Yes, you can add additional accessory exercises to the program if you want to. Just make sure that you don’t add so many accessory movements that you lose focus on the really important lifts: the squat, bench press, and deadlift.
How Long Can I Follow an Intermediate Powerlifting Routine?
You can follow this intermediate powerlifting routine for as long as it makes you stronger. In this program, the weights increase every week in a waveform pattern.
A weekly progression rate is about right for the intermediate powerlifter, but sooner or later your progress rate will slow. At that point, you should follow one of our more advanced powerlifting programs.
Follow the Intermediate Powerlifting Program in StrengthLog
This program is available in our workout tracker app. StrengthLog is free to download and use as a workout tracker where all the basic functionality is free – forever.
The app also has a bunch of free programs and workouts. However, our more advanced programs (such as this one) are for premium users only.
Want to give premium a shot? We offer all new users a free 14-day trial of premium, which you can activate in the app.
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